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Posts Tagged ‘Naomi Watts’

Not for the first time recently, we went on holiday only to find our arrival coincided with regrettably unseasonal weather conditions: ‘WINTER STORM EXPECTED SUNDAY PM/MONDAY AM’ flashed every roadside information board all the way from JFK into Manhattan. Probably just a coincidence, and I suppose it could have been worse: it was only the first day or so of the trip, when we were taking it fairly easy and trying to get over the jet lag.

The prospect of spending the evening in the hotel room was brightened a bit when Travelling Companion spotted that the movie on BBC America was King Kong. This seemed (potentially, at least) a very appropriate film for the situation – it’s one of the great, iconic New York movies, and we were staying just round the corner from the Empire State Building. The only slight cause for uncertainty was that there was no way of finding out which version of King Kong we were going to be treated to, because personally I find that my mileage differs radically (I have written in the past about my very unfashionable fondness for the reviled 1976 version). Well, we settled down in front of the TV, and I have to confess that my heart sank a bit when it became clear we would be going through the experience that is Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of this classic tale.

Surely everybody knows the basic plot of this archetypal fable: it is the early 1930s, and many Americans are struggling with the consequences of the Great Depression. Amongst them is vaudevillian Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), who is out of work and struggling to even eat. Hope glimmers when she encounters maverick film-maker Carl Denham (Jack Black, playing the part as Orson Welles at his most Machiavellian), who whisks her off to star in his new movie, to be filmed on location on an uncharted island. Also shanghaied for the trip is earnest young playwright Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). Soon enough (well, maybe not, but we shall return to this) everyone sets sail for Skull Island, little anticipating the unusual ecosystem that has survived there: arthropods of unusual size, relict dinosaurs, and a large gorilla population (there’s actually only one gorilla, but it is very large).

Well, the natives take a fancy to Ann and end up sacrificing her to the ape, known to them as Kong (Andy Serkis does the mocapping essentials). Even as her colleagues mount a desperate attempt to rescue her, Ann finds herself realising that Kong is not quite the savage beast he first appears to be, while Carl reaches the conclusion that the ape could be just what he needs to make his career – all he needs to do is get Kong back to New York. What could possibly go wrong with an idea like that…?

Peter Jackson is quite open about the fact that the original King Kong is his favourite film of all time – well, there’s nothing wrong with that, it is an essential classic and one of the foundation texts of the fantasy and monster movie genres. He initially wanted to make it in the late 1990s, when I seem to recall it had acquired the title The Legend of King Kong, but for various reasons the project got put on hold while he pushed ahead with his noted jewellery-related triptych.

Personally I would quite like to look into that parallel dimension where Jackson made King Kong before Lord of the Rings, as I think the version they have there would be very interesting and quite possibly better. For me the extant version feels very much like the movie equivalent of one of those brick-sized mid-to-late Harry Potter novels written when J.K. Rowling had become so successful she could do anything she wanted and nobody, it seems, was brave enough to suggest that more is sometimes less.

It’s hard to imagine that the pre-Rings Jackson would have been indulged in making a version of Kong that runs for over three hours, nearly twice the length of the original film. Certainly, the 1933 film moves along at a brisk clip and skimps a little bit when it comes to things like characterisation, but it’s a pulp monster movie and that is the source of most of its charm. Blowing the movie up to proportions even vaster than that of the title character changes it entirely, making it ponderous and a source more of bathos than genuine pathos.

It is, for example, an hour into the movie before they even arrive at Skull Island, and obviously more than that before we see any monsters: Jackson has cast a trio of hot young stars (Brody was relatively fresh from his Oscar win, making this a curious inversion of that phenomenon where successful young actresses are almost instantly cast in fantasy and superhero movies – cf. Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Brie Larson, etc), but they struggle with a script that simply feels bloated – Peter Jackson and his collaborators clearly have their hearts set on making an epic movie, perhaps rather in the same vein as Titanic, but they struggle to find anything appropriately profound to say, and the film feels like it’s taking itself very seriously considering it is essentially about an island full of dinosaurs and a giant gorilla rampaging through Manhattan. It also feels like there’s an awful lot of filler (a subplot about Jamie Bell and Evan Parke’s characters doesn’t contribute much of anything and could easily be snipped entirely).

Despite being essentially a homage, the movie seems to have a curious and by no means uncritical attitude towards the 1933 film. There are, of course, a number of in-jokes and references scattered throughout it, but one gets a general sense of Jackson and his writers attempting to update and ‘fix’ the original story. This is fair enough: the 1933 Kong‘s presentation of the islanders is horribly awkward and dated, which the newer film acknowledges by modelling Denham’s ugly and garish stage extravaganza on these scenes. But again, this is hardly done with the lightest of touches.

The really successful element of the 2005 film, at the heart of the sequences where it genuinely feels as if it’s coming to life, is its handling of Skull Island itself: what’s a fairly generic ‘Lost World’ backdrop in the original has obviously been the source of much (maybe even too much) thought and imagination, with new species of dinosaur and creepy-crawly developed to populate it. The bits of the film where Jackson genuinely feels like he’s enjoying himself all derive from this, and diverge considerably from the source: the sauropod stampede, the nightmarish chasm scene, and the fight between Kong and the vastatosaurs.

The special effects are, of course, state of the art, but again one has to wonder about some of the creative decisions involved – it’s shorthand to describe King Kong as a gorilla movie, but the makers of most films involving this character have played it a little fast and loose when it comes to presenting the giant ape – the most recent Kong movie, for instance, opted to make him more bipedal and humanoid, simply because this suited the feel they were going for. The Jackson-Serkis Kong, on the other hand, is the most authentically gorilla-ish Kong in movie history, but it’s not really clear what dividend this pays.

What does feel like a definite misstep, motivated perhaps by that decision to go for a Titanic kind of vibe, is the choice to make Kong an almost entirely sympathetic character from much earlier in the film. It’s only comparatively late in the 1933 version, when it becomes obvious he is doomed, that Kong becomes the icon of pathos and tragedy he is best remembered as – prior to this, he is an ambiguous and often frightening figure. Jackson and company clearly want us on his side all the way through, one of their main tactics being to get Naomi Watts to do her sad-open-mouth face whenever Kong is in trouble (which she ends up doing a lot). The problem is that by trying to solicit pathos rather than thrills, the film usually ends up generating neither.

Despite all of this negative talk, I would still have to agree that King Kong is a case of a great director producing a magnificent folly more than an outright failure. There is all the material here for a potentially great fantasy film, but there’s just too much of it, along with plenty of other stuff which wouldn’t ever normally appear in a conventional monster movie. In the end, this is a lavish, impressively-assembled film, but it’s saddled with an inappropriate tone and a misconceived sense of its own significance that makes it a tough slog to get through.

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Once more unto the Phoenix, where – it would seem – the blight of allocated seating now extends even unto weekday evening screenings. The staff don’t like the policy, and I and apparently many other of the more vocal patrons of the joint don’t like the policy. And yet a poll of the membership has come down in favour of turning the getting of a decent seat in the smaller screen into a ruthless tactical exercise. Hey ho.

Luckily, there were only five of us in there when I went the other day, to see Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young. Baumbach is the kind of director whose name I vaguely know, and whose films I have have heard of, but I wouldn’t have been able to put those two bits of information together, and I was still slightly surprised to learn I’ve actually seen one of his other movies (Frances Ha from 2013 – and, of course, anyone who gets on so well with Greta Gerwig is clearly a good egg). Said movie struck me as a bit Woody Allen-esque in its subject and setting, and the same goes for While We’re Young, which is a comedy-drama about well-off metropolitan types.

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Well, probably more of a full-on comedy, I suppose. Regular readers will know my aversion to most mainstream American comedies, on the grounds that they are – erm, how can I put this? – not funny, but the fact that While We’re Young opens with an extended quote from Ibsen should tip the attentive viewer off that this is not a typical mainstream American comedy.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a happily-married couple in their early forties (as the theme of acting your own age is central to the movie, I feel obliged to mention that Stiller is not) who believe themselves to be happy with their lifestyle. Both are film-makers, one way or another, and they have accepted they’re not going to have children. This puts them rather at odds with most of their set, whose lives essentially revolve around grappling with infants of various sizes.

The plot proper gets underway when they encounter another couple, Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried). Jamie and Darby are twenty years their junior and Josh and Cornelia find themselves rather captivated by the passion for life that the young people have – the fact that Jamie is a fan of Joshua’s back catalogue may have something to do with it, as well.

But is everything quite as it seems? Could it be that Josh and Cornelia have simply embarked on a futile attempt to cling onto the vestiges of their own youth? And is Jamie’s interest in Josh quite as straightforward as it seems? It soon becomes apparent that the generation gap is still in existence, and before too long someone’s going to come a cropper falling into it.

Fans of the bodily-fluids-and-profanity school of humour may not find much to attract them here, but While We’re Young made me laugh a lot, particularly in its first half. There are few more reliable sources of comedy than people failing to act in an age-appropriate way and the sight of Ben Stiller attempting to bond with hipsters and Naomi Watts tackling a hip-hop dance class provides many opportunities for proper laughs. The film has a nice line in sharp, deadpan dialogue, too: ‘You’ve made a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels seven hours too long,’ someone tells Josh of his latest opus, while a scene in which he is diagnosed with arthritis by his doctor is also extremely droll: ‘Arthritis arthritis?’ he yelps, distraught. ‘I usually just say it the once,’ replies the physician, unflappably.

Above all, this part of the film is a smart and insightful comedy of manners and social embarrassment with some great set pieces and moments of real perceptiveness: there’s a nice sequence quietly drawing attention to the way that middle-aged people are more likely to adopt new technology than the young. And it does address what seems to me to be a problem for the childless thirty- and forty-something: what exactly do you do with your life to give it value, without either seeming self-indulgent or looking like you’re in a state of arrested development? I’ve seen plenty of people in this situation who wind up taking refuge in the dreaded Ironic Sensibility.

However, there’s not a great deal of scope for plot here, which is probably why the second half of the film concerns itself with knottier and less universal issues – namely, the values of the different generations and whether a lack of commonality here is a serious problem, or only to be expected (or perhaps both). Baumbach’s line of approach on this is the question of authenticity in documentary film-making, which has been a live issue over the last few years in the wake of films like Catfish and Searching For Sugar Man, which were accused of either manipulating the truth or being out-and-out hoaxes. There’s what looks very like a gloves-off swipe at Catfish in particular here, but Baumbach’s attempt to tie this in to the theme of generational difference feels just a little laboured. It’s true that many younger people nowadays interact with culture in a wholly different way to how things were in the pre-digital age, but then so do quite a few older ones as well.

It’s also perhaps a little disappointing that the second half of the film is centred so firmly on Joshua, while the first part was told at least partly from Cornelia’s point of view. This is not because of any weakness in Ben Stiller’s performance – he is as accomplished an actor as ever – but simply because it turns the film into a piece about a middle-aged white guy possibly heading for a mid-life crisis, and we are not short of iterations of that story. It makes the film a little more conventional than it perhaps needed to be. (When it comes to the younger couple, the film gives much more prominence to Adam Driver, too: apart from a couple of scenes, Amanda Seyfried really gets quite little to do.)

The same is true of how the story resolves itself. To be fair, the film is largely built around the premise that a refusal to admit you are ageing is going to result in you looking increasingly foolish as time goes by, but this isn’t quite the same thing as the whole-hearted endorsement of thorough-going normalcy that the end of the movie actually feels like. Then again, this is ultimately still a mainstream film on some level, so I suppose one shouldn’t be too surprised. While We’re Young  is at least a mainstream film with some intelligence and wit about it, and one which made me laugh a lot despite my ultimate misgivings about parts of it. Worth seeing, especially if your fortieth birthday is not too distant a memory.

 

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I think we sometimes underestimate the influence of context on how others perceive us. To my landlady I expect I appear as a quiet, affable, accommodating type, while to my students I suspect I am a more challenging and unusual figure. To the staff of the local art house cinema, however, if I am anything at all, I am that bloke who only seems to go to see Woody Allen movies. Much as I like the place and its ambience (the gents’ lavatory door is marked only by a striking life-size painting of Toshiro Mifune from Yojimbo, for instance) I’ve only got down there twice, on both occasions to see something of Allen’s.

This is not because I am a particular fan of Woody Allen’s work. It is rather that I only go there when absolutely nothing piques my interest at the mainstream multiplexes, and – this may be a coincidence, but may not – these quiet times seem to be when Allen’s work gets released these days. It certainly doesn’t show up in the major chains, anyway. The first time I trotted along to the art house it was to see last summer’s Whatever Works (which certainly didn’t). This time it was for his latest movie, touted as a return to form and entitled You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger.

To be perfectly honest, the movie this reminded me of most was Eugene Lourie’s classic 1961 offering Gorgo, in which avaricious chancers capture a giant sea monster and put it on display in the centre of a major city, only for disaster to ensue when the monster’s humungous mother shows up to rescue it. All You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shares in terms of its plot is the setting, which is London: but in both cases the style and sensibility of a film usually set elsewhere (in Gorgo‘s case, Tokyo; in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger‘s, New York) has been transplanted to the city, with results which seem inexplicably peculiar.

The general consensus is that Allen isn’t the film-maker he was thirty or even twenty years ago, but his ability to attract impressive performers to his films is undiminished. In this one, for example, people like Ewen Bremner, Philip Glenister, Meera Syal and Anna Friel all turn up in minor roles, which is more than a little startling. Further up the cast things are even more glittery.

This is another of Allen’s stories of the complicated personal lives of affluent metropolitan types, based around an older couple (Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones) and their daughter and son-in-law (Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin). Hopkins has a (slightly late) mid-life crisis and divorces Jones, eventually marrying a prostitute (Lucy Punch). Distraught (and tending towards alcoholism), Jones is encouraged to seek solace in visiting a fortune-teller (Pauline Collins) by Watts. Watts is contending with a growing attraction to her art-dealer boss (Antonio Banderas), her desire to be financially secure and start a family, and her useless husband. Brolin is a struggling writer trying to sell a book but increasingly besotted with a woman (Freida Pinto) whose apartment he can see into.

All these threads amble along inoffensively enough for the most part (though the stuff with Brolin essentially letching at Pinto getting changed, with which she seems perfectly okay, felt a bit icky) – as I said, it’s the same sort of affluent-lives-in-crisis material which has powered many of Allen’s other films. It’s very clearly not set in a version of London remotely resembling our own: this is a film so far detached from reality that a minor but pivotal character can be called Henry Strangler without it seeming at all weird.

It doesn’t seem to be going anywhere special for much of its running time: Hopkins’s thread is probably the best, Watts’ the least involving. There are some odd choices of what to show on-screen: ‘Sally decided her marriage was over and asked Roy for a divorce,’ says the chirpy (American) narrator at one point – that’s the kind of scene most films would feel it worthwhile to include, but not here.

But then – and this completely threw me at the time – something really odd happens. (Spoilers follow, so be warned.) Hopkins discovers Punch has been unfaithful to him and the child she’s carrying may not be his. Brolin, who’s stolen a brilliant manuscript written by a friend he believed to be dead, learns his friend is in fact only in a coma and may recover, which would be catastrophically bad news for him. And having encouraged her mother’s mystical beliefs as a way of keeping her happy and occupied, when Watts asks her for a loan to help her start her own business she is refused on the grounds the psychic says it would end badly. Genuine tension and raw emotion appear for the first time in the movie… which then abruptly ends, none of these things resolved, the final scene being given to Jones’s character, who’s the only happy one, being on the verge of marrying an occult bookstore owner.

I couldn’t figure out why Woody would make an hour and a half of faff – which is what the majority of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger is – and cram all the interesting stuff into the last ten minutes without following any of it to a conclusion. However, I believe I have figured out what his intention was: this movie is supposed to be about the fact that happiness sometimes walks hand-in-hand with delusion, and it’s supposed to be blackly ironic that Jones’s mysticism has made her happy while all the others’ more ‘realistic’ view of the world has caused them nothing but pain.

Except the execution of the idea kills it. This would only work if Jones was mocked and scorned throughout the film and the others were presented as likeable, successful people in comparison. But they’re not. Beneath the mild and easy-going exterior this is a rather misanthropic film (even moreso, misogynistic: the presentation of Lucy Punch’s character is particularly uncomfortable), and no-one comes across particularly positively. You know Hopkins is heading for a fall from the moment you meet his new bride, and Brolin’s character is just an unpleasant loser throughout. It’s not a sudden reversal when they end up in a bad place. Watts’s character is decent enough, but she never convinces: the fact it’s a British character written by an American and played by an Australian may have something to do with this.  Allen’s point is still there, just about: but you really have to strain to see it and it doesn’t really have much impact once you discern it.

Most of the cast is effective enough, Hopkins particularly so, and there are lots of mildly amusing bits along the way. It’s certainly not as thorough-goingly awful as Whatever Works was: but the fact is that this is a movie which had an interesting idea at its heart, the execution of which has basically been bungled. And that’s just rather frustrating. If nothing else, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger shows that Woody Allen hasn’t completely lost his edge: it just seems, sadly, that he can’t seem to find a way to employ it effectively anymore.

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